Love and Death (1975): Woody Allen’s Satire of Russian Culture, Starring Diane Keaton

Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” is a funny, sometimes even poignant satire of Russian literature and manners.

In this 1975 comedy, Allen’s targets and references include the great novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and other figures.

The movie was made after “Sleeper” and before “Annie Hall,” Allen’s breakthrough film, which gained him the acceptance of mainstream audiences—and the 1977 Oscars for Best Picture and Original Screenplay; Diane Keaton won Best Actress.

Allen plays Boris, a 19th century Russian who falls in love with his distant (and married) cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton). Recruited into service with the Russian army during the Napoleon Wars, Boris accidentally becomes a hero.  Later on, with his ego inflated, he engages in and wins a duel against a cuckolded husband (Harold Gould).

Boris returns to Sonja, hoping to settle down, but in his absence, Sonja has become politicized and she is now inflamed with patriotic fervor. To that extent, she asks Boris to join a plot aiming at  killing Napoleon.

Still influenecd then by the comedies of the Marx brothers and the deivery style of Bob Hope, “Love and Death” contains many mocking (but also serious or semi-serious) allusions to more substantial intellectual and philosophical ideas.

Allen’s film is self-conscious and self-reflexive, and as such, contains many deliberate anachronisms, manifest in the monologues and dialogue, and/or references to works of literature and art.

As always in this Allen era, there are at least a dozen funny one-liners.  Thus, when congratulated for his lovemaking, Boris replies nonchalantly, “I practice a lot when I’m alone.” (Many Allen films makes explicit references to masturbation). Allen-Boris addresses the audience directly.  Talking t the camera, he say at one point: “There are some things worse than death, like if you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman.”

The music of the noted Sergey Prokofiev contributes to establishing the (pseudo) Russian mood of “Love and Death.” Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijé Suite”  is playinf during the film’s opening and closing credits.